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News / Clark County News

Traveling Sauna brings traditional Finnish culture to Battle Ground

A group with a traveling sauna are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Finland's independence, and bringing it to Hockinson on Saturday

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer
Published: April 2, 2017, 8:41pm
3 Photos
Oliver Murray and his mother, Marita Ghobrial, exit the Traveling Sauna, which made a stop in Battle Ground on Saturday.
Oliver Murray and his mother, Marita Ghobrial, exit the Traveling Sauna, which made a stop in Battle Ground on Saturday. A group of Finnish immigrants living in Minnesota came up with the idea to honor Finland's 100th anniversary of independence. Photo Gallery

BATTLE GROUND — When Markku Kesala sees a sauna, all he can think is that it’s time to play the music and light the lights.

“Growing up in Finland, my family would sauna together every Friday,” Kesala, of Vancouver, said. “My sister and I would always make sure to finish up in time to watch ‘The Muppet Show.’ When I see a sauna now, I hear the theme song.”

Kesala’s story was a common one — Muppets aside — shared Saturday afternoon in Battle Ground when 75 or so people came out to celebrate their Finnish heritage at Gerry Adolson’s house. There, members of United Finnish Kaleva Brothers and Sisters Lodge No. 24 greeted visitors traveling around the country with a sauna.

The Traveling Sauna tour was dreamed up by Finland natives Risto Sivula and Jouko Sipila, who now both live in Minnesota. They came up with the idea to celebrate Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence.

“It used to be that when Finns would settle somewhere, they’d build a sauna before a house,” Sivula said. “It provided shelter and warmth. It was a place to wash yourself, and the place where women gave birth. It’s the place where dead bodies are washed before being buried. The sauna is very important to us.”

Common in area

The Hockinson area was settled by mostly Finnish immigrants in the late 1800s. Stan Heikkinen and Alina McElveny both grew up in the area, and a half-century ago, it was common for residents to have personal saunas at their homes in Battle Ground or Hockinson.

“It’s much more than a place to get clean,” said Heikkinen, who now lives in Seattle. “It became a social event. Every Saturday night, we’d all go sauna.”

McElveny said the Traveling Sauna was “the real deal” and felt like one she would go to growing up.

Guests took turns in the sauna, which featured a wood-burning stove with rocks placed on top that people could toss water on to increase the heat.

“In Finland, we traditionally have wet saunas,” Heikkinen said. “Most people experience saunas at 150 degrees in a gym, and if there are rocks, they forbid you from throwing water on them to make it hotter. A sauna is supposed to be relaxing.”

While the guests who stepped out from the dreary, rainy afternoon into the sauna did exit with red faces, most came out looking loose and relieved. Even toward the end of the day, after the sauna had been used by countless guests and the front door was left open for a while, the thermometer inside still showed the sauna almost 200 degrees.

Organizers pleased

McElveny was one of the main organizers of the event and said she was pleased with how everything turned out.

“Of the three women who organized it, I thought nobody would come, another thought the sauna wouldn’t get here in time, and the third thought we wouldn’t have enough food,” McElveny said. “We were all so wrong.”

In a building next to the sauna, guests brought traditional Finnish food, including pulla, which is cardamom bread, korppu, which is a toasted bread usually sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and pea soup. McElveny said the spread was similar to one that would be put out during those old Saturday night social sauna gatherings.

That’s partly why she was excited to bring the Traveling Sauna to Clark County. She said younger generations aren’t learning about their heritage as much as the first few generations of immigrants did, and she’d like to do more events like the sauna one to help change that.

The lodge, which meets monthly, is getting more members. There are about 30 active members, she said, including about 15 or so who joined in the last year. Some kids in the community, and students from the Portland Finnish School attended on Saturday. Some tried the sauna for a few minutes and others played games, such as boot throwing.

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For Sivula and his traveling team, the trip has been a fun way to spread Finnish culture. The sauna is scheduled for 30-plus events through the year, culminating in a big celebration in Washington D.C. on Dec. 6, Finland’s Independence Day.

“It’s an opportunity for us to go around and say ‘hello’ to people all over the country,” he said. “The Finnish ambassador (Kirsti Kauppi) has been to a few cities with us already. She mostly has to stay in Washington or goes back to Finland, but for this, she decided to travel around a bit. We are discovering all these pockets of Finland and Finnish culture in America.”

Columbian Staff Writer